My Jerry Lewis

Rowan Atkinson

I hadn’t planned to write this particular diary entry — my next was supposed to be about Metallica and Radiohead — but I was reading a movie review on Salon and started giggling. A lot. In my little corner of the common office. Nobody was more surprised than I.

The review wasn’t particularly funny, and apparently the movie isn’t, either. What made me laugh was Rowan Atkinson.

And I don’t mean just that I find Rowan Atkinson humorous, as in, “I sure do like that Rowan Atkinson. He’s funny.” The very thought of Rowan Atkinson was funny enough to make me laugh. Because Atkinson is such a distinctive performer, I could visualize the scenes the writer described, and damn were they funny.

For the life of me, I can’t think of any other performer who has this type of effect on me — or at least this type of positive impact. (I’m not easy to amuse, but the mere thought of many people — some performers, many not — can make me grind my teeth.)

The movie in question is Johnny English, a spy spoof for an era that apparently believes one can never have too many spy spoofs, or reality shows. For most Americans, whatever draw this film has will come from John Malkovich as the villain, because Atkinson isn’t very popular here. He’s had roles in popular movies such as Scooby-Doo and Four Weddings & A Funeral, but his career has been made on British television shows such as Blackadder.

For me, though, Rowan Atkinson will always be just one character: Mr. Bean, who appeared in 14 episodes of his own show on British TV as well as a movie that seemed designed primarily to introduce him to Americans.

Mr. Bean is nearly mute, and fully child-like. He is all id. He has an insatiable curiosity — if he could sniff his own ass, he would — and refuses to acknowledge the existence of needs or desires beyond his own. Even poor, beloved Teddy suffers many indignities at the hands of his master. The only backstory is a suggestion at the opening of each show that Bean is an alien.

There’s no arc to the television show; it’s sketch comedy, and there are no lessons, important or otherwise, learned by anyone. (The movie’s big mistake was trying to craft characters to interact with Mr. Bean. As funny as it often is, there’s something incongruous about making Bean live and interact with normal people and normal-people emotions.)

And it’s by no means sophisticated comedy. If you’ve never seen Mr. Bean, all you probably need to know is that one holiday he loses his watch while stuffing the turkey and ends up wearing said bird on his head. (The episode is repeated in the movie.)

Mr. Bean is, however, an inspired character, wonderfully performed by Atkinson. Both his body and his face seem made of rubber, and unlike, say, Jim Carrey, the performance is purely physical. When Mr. Bean does speak, it’s in an unintelligible mumble except when he’s telling somebody his name (and that seems to require great effort, as if the character is trying to speak while chewing a mouthful of taffy). So Atkinson is left with his expressive face and body.

Still, there’s no way to justify Mr. Bean intellectually. He makes me laugh, and not just when I’m watching him.

I tell you this for no reason except to offer ammunition to anybody who wants to deflate anything I write or say: “Yeah, but he loves Mr. Bean ... .” It’s a guaranteed argument winner.

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